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Features

October 16, 2012

Book a poignant look at past

— Willa Cather’s “The Professor’s House” is a poignant novel about the transition from middle age to old age. Set at a fictional university in the Chicago suburb of Hamilton on Lake Michigan, the story centers on Professor Godfrey St. Peter’s coming to terms with this change. Having recently moved into a new house, Professor St. Peter retains his study in the two-story Victorian home where he and his wife, Lillian, raised their two daughters. The house represents one of the first changes many people resist when transitioning to later years. Intertwined in his thinking is an increasing alienation from his wife and daughters, whose entrenchment in the materialism of the 1920’s disappoints him.

But the back story to the novel is the romanticism we give to the past and that other life we might have lived, if our choices and luck had gone differently. St. Peter reflects on Tom Outland, his former student and near son-in-law killed in World War I, whose brilliance was rooted in his early experiences in New Mexico. Outland’s commercial patent nets him a fortune, which he leaves in his will to his fiancé, St. Peter’s daughter. St. Peter and Outland had also shared a love for cliff dwellings at Blue Mesa and the spiritual experience associated with the American Southwest and the Spanish conquest. For the last 15 years, St. Peter has been working on his comprehensive “Spanish Adventures in North America,” synthesized in his study in the old two-story house.

At the age of 51, questions of depression and a near-death experience force St. Peter to examine his life and come to startling realizations about what it has all been about. Rather than an is-that-all-there-is conclusion, we are left with the sense that St. Peter really is happy inwardly, but faces those existential questions we all face, and deals with it as one must, if he is to go on to the end. This is one of Cather’s best works, full of character detail, atmosphere, and, even though written in 1925, the same questions prevail concerning a vapid and materialistic American culture juxtaposed against living a full and spiritual life. Here Cather’s St. Peter contends equally with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Nick in “The Great Gatsby.” For more information on Cather’s life and work, visit The Willa Cather Foundation at www.willacather.org.

“The Professor’s House” is a thought-provoking book club choice that will incite discussion for any age group. Pork and Potato Verde would make an easy and evocative main dish, easily doubled for a larger crowd.

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